Indian IT's gargantuan re-engineering problem

The rot lies deep for Indian IT and nothing short of an education overhaul will fix it.

For Indian IT, the world has changed seemingly overnight. The biggest existential threat seems to be US President Donald Trump's proposed immigration reform that could put substantial barriers to Indian IT being able to corner the market on skilled H-1B visas, thereby threatening the lucrative $75 billion or so that it collects in revenue from the US alone.

Equally serious is the fact that the traditional outsourcing model will no longer be the reliable bread-and-butter business that it used to be. Instead, the new frontiers of business that are quickly becoming mainstream are in the areas of AI, digital, robotics, cloud, and Internet of Things, which Indian firms are desperately trying to claw themselves into contention in.

While doing that though, they have to wrestle with another big dilemma: automation is rapidly eliminating a vast portion of the more routine, low-level IT jobs that Indian companies use college graduates for. This means that IT services firms will have to either let go hundreds of thousands of workers on their rolls, or retrain then to be part of the new wave of IT work that will be up for grabs. But is that even a realistic option?

According to no better authority than Srinivas Kandula, CEO of the Indian arm of French IT major Capgemini who was speaking at an industry conference recently, the situation in India is especially bleak. "I am not very pessimistic, but it is a challenging task and I tend to believe that 60-65 percent [of Indian IT workers] are just not trainable," he said. "Probably, India will witness the largest unemployment in the middle level to senior level," he added.

Kandula's observation has roots in a more fundamental problem -- that the majority of India's engineering graduates don't have skills worth the paper their degrees are printed on. According to employment solutions company Aspiring Minds, a well-known institution that regularly tracks the worth of college graduates, a staggering 80 percent of engineers in India don't possess skills that can make them employable. Alarmingly, the results from their annual survey of 150,000 engineering students from 650 engineering colleges hasn't changed much in five years. Apparently, as many as 97 percent of engineering graduates desire positions in software engineering or core engineering but only 3 percent have the requisite chops to be employed in software or product market. Only 7 percent can complete core engineering tasks.

This may seem very strange stuff for a country that has produced some of the finest engineering brains that the world has seen. Indians were responsible for 13.4 percent of Valley startups (6.5 percent of them nationwide) despite comprising less than 1 percent of the US population. Today, Indians dot the upper, middle, and lower echelons of pretty much any tech company worth speaking of, from Google (Pichai) to Microsoft (Nadella) to Adobe (Narayen). The country's Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and other regional engineering colleges routinely send flocks of students to PhD programs in the US.

Either the cream of this cohort is going abroad for their education, or every one of these minds is capable of becoming a Pichai, a Nadella, or at least a modest version of them, but is stymied by the rot that is the Indian higher educational system. Evidence leans towards the latter. India has 6,214 engineering and technology institutions that enroll 2.9 million students annually, and many of these colleges have rock-bottom standards if they are not fly-by-night operations.

When they do seem aboveboard, the problem is the huge gap between market needs and what is being taught in these colleges, which peddle grossly outdated curriculum. Take a peek inside some engineering programs today and you may be shocked to find languages such as BASIC, FORTRAN and even some "marked for death" languages like PERL or Object Pascal being taught instead of current industry standards such as Python or Ruby on Rails.

A revealing post courtesy of former IIT professor and current Dheeraj Sanghi said that "a lot of people have talked about poor quality curriculum, poor quality faculty, poor infrastructure, poor school education, and so on. I disagree. There is a much simpler explanation for this: Copying in our colleges, besides laziness."

The professor, who was part of a selection committee to hire programmers for a government department, found that prospective recruits -- including those with several years industry experience -- couldn't write the most basic code that is taught in the very first semester in college. He told Indian digital news site Scroll that students simply copy them from the net or from each other and then when it is tested in the lab, voila, it works and marks are duly awarded.

Another key shortcoming is the lack of soft skills, which increasingly are as important as core skills, especially as companies are becoming more global with transnational teams that don't consider geographic location so vital any more.

"This is perhaps the trickiest issue," said Siddarth Bharwani, vice president at Jetking Infotrain in India Today. "The lack of ability of the individual to deliver his views effectively at the interview leads to rejection of even the most brilliant candidate. This is because training institutes do not make an effort to ensure that the candidates develop their skills in a wholesome manner which can contribute towards client-handling and team communication skills."

One of India's prized assets has always been its bright minds as evidence of the legions who left the country's shores and made glittering reputations for themselves overseas. Many of the educational institutions -- such as the vaunted engineering school Birla Institute of Technology and Sciences (BITS) -- that have produced them have introduced crucial requirements to help their graduates wrestle with the real world when they leave campus, such as grafting on professional training and skills as a compulsory part of the curriculum.

However, for Indian IT to have a shot at competing for global projects in the future -- and most importantly, to flourish at home and cater to its vast markets -- education at home has to go through a drastic overhaul.

The alternative -- hundreds of millions of unemployed and unemployable graduates (India sends 6 million graduates into the work force every year) -- is a recipe for social upheaval.

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